Three Gorges Probe

PRESS RELEASE: Leaked documents reveal officials fear environmental crisis in dam reservoir

(February 14, 2001) Chinese officials alarmed at looming environmental crisis at Three Gorges dam, internal documents reveal.

Dam will not provide reliable power or control Yangtze floods. “Never, ever let the public know this,” warns eminent Chinese scientist


In correspondence and meetings with Guo Shuyan, the man in charge of building the Three Gorges dam, Zhang Guangduo, the eminent Qinghua University professor and author of the environmental assessment of the Chinese government’s Three Gorges feasibility study, pleads for US$37 billion to address the looming environmental crisis in the dam’s reservoir area.

Professor Zhang became alarmed after he and a former minister of water resources met with officials from the Environmental Protection Bureau of Chongqing and learned that the Bureau has inadequate data on industrial wastewater and domestic sewage flowing into the Three Gorges reservoir, and insufficient money to build the necessary treatment plants. “Our discussion with them caused me to worry tremendously about the conservation and management of the reservoir environment,” he stated in his April 1, 2000 letter to Guo.

The new super municipality of Chongqing, which was created in 1997 to appease dam-affected Chongqing, is now responsible for 75 percent of the reservoir area and 85 percent of the people to be resettled by the dam. Every year the municipality discharges more than one billion tonnes of industrial wastewater and 300 million tonnes of sewage into the site of the Three Gorges’ reservoir. Only 28 percent and 8 percent of that, respectively, is treated.

These leaked documents, which were circulated between April and June of 2000 to dam-skeptic Premier Zhu Rongji, who immediately sent it to dam-proponent Li Peng, also reveal that the Chinese leadership knows the Three Gorges dam will be incapable of delivering its promised flood control, power, and navigation benefits.

“Perhaps you know that the flood control capacity of the Three Gorges Project is smaller than declared by us,” Zhang reminded Guo during their meeting. “The research [showing that the dam’s flood control benefits are inadequate] was done by the Qinghua University,” and the “Changjiang Water Resources Commission has also admitted this is true.”

Professor Zhang argues that the threat of floods can be addressed by lowering the water level in the Three Gorges reservoir to 135 metres, but this would adversely affect shipping on the river. “But keep in mind,” he urges, “never, ever let the public know this.”

Lowering the reservoir level to provide flood control will also compromise electricity output from the dam in summer, Zhang explained to Guo, making it necessary to supplement Three Gorges with thermal — oil, gas, and coal — plants.

Zhang is also worried that the cost of Three Gorges’ power will suffer the same fate as Sichuan province’s Ertan dam, recently finished with the help of $1.8 billion in loans from the World Bank. “The price for hydropower electricity generated by the Ertan Power Station is so expensive that nobody is willing to buy it,” he stated, adding that “customers in China would rather die than buy Ertan’s electricity.”

From the correspondence and a transcript of a subsequent meeting between Zhang and Guo, Zhang appears to feel personally responsible for an evolving environmental disaster. In particular, he expresses guilt about convincing his fellow members at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to endorse the project, despite their environmental concerns. “This is why I am feeling particularly anxious about the Three Gorges Project’s environmental protection,” he says, adding that his greatest concern is that “we have not done our job very well.”

He is also bothered that foreign critics of the dam’s environmental consequences — especially the Americans — will gloat if the Three Gorges reservoir becomes a sewage lake. “We should put everything right with respect to the environment because the Americans want to see our failure,” he told Guo.

As for spending money to preserve archeological treasures in the reservoir area, Zhang is downright derisive. “In my view, it does not make any sense to put money on the preservation of the Yushiliang [a nearly 2 kilometre long fish-shaped stone with 1,200 year old hydrological records carved in to it]. There is definitely nothing special to seeing it, or not seeing it.”

Zhang also ridicules the efforts of 53 scientists, engineers and water management experts who, in April 2000, urged the Chinese leadership to fill the Three Gorges reservoir slowly in order to determine whether higher water levels are viable. Many of them, he complained “just gathered together to create a disturbance.”

Zhang also denounces the rampant corruption that plagues the project. “It is absolutely wrong to take the money from the affected people,” he says, but Three Gorges money “is like a big and delicious free meal, so everybody wants to have it.”

Probe International, February 14, 2001

For the full text of this article see:

For more information, contact:
Patricia Adams, Publisher of Three Gorges Probe
(416) 964-9223 (ext. 227) or
or GrĂ¡inne Ryder, Policy Director, Probe International
(416) 964-9223 (ext. 228)

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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